ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.
The controversy over Barack Obama's long-time pastor has been debated in very broad terms, issues of race, patriotism and the African-American church traditions.
On Monday at the National Press Club, the Reverend Jeremiah Wright spoke of the black church as he addressed criticism of his statements.
Reverend JEREMIAH WRIGHT (Senior Pastor, Trinity United Church of Christ): This is not an attack on Jeremiah Wright. It has nothing to do with Senator Obama. This is an attack on the black church launched by people who know nothing about the African-American religious tradition.
SIEGEL: Well, NPR's Barbara Bradley Hagerty asked other black ministers and church members what they make of the assertion that this is an attack on the black church.
BARBARA BRADLEY HAGERTY: Reverend Graylan Hagler is a friend of Jeremiah Wright's, and he was in the audience on Monday watching Wright defend himself. Hagler is a senior pastor of Plymouth Congregational United Church of Christ in Washington, D.C. He says decrying injustice and criticizing ruling powers is what black preachers do, and this controversy has been manufactured to stop them.
Reverend GRAYLAN HAGLER (Senior Pastor, Plymouth Congregational United Church of Christ): To muzzle us, to silence the preaching and the power of that form of preaching and teaching and action in the world.
HAGERTY: Hagler says many black preachers and congregants echo Wright's assertions that the U.S. government invited the 9/11 attacks because it has performed acts of terrorism, and that the government developed the HIV virus to kill people of color. Hagler supports Barack Obama, but he says if Wright's statements harm Obama's bid to become the first African-American president...
Rev. HAGLER: Chips fall where they may. As every preacher will tell you that the thing that they are accountable to is God Almighty.
HAGERTY: But Bishop Harry Jackson of Hope Christian Church in Beltsville, Maryland has another take on Obama's pastor.
Bishop HARRY JACKSON (Hope Christian Church, Beltsville, Maryland): Jeremiah Wright is not mainstream.
HAGERTY: Jackson leads a Pentecostal church. He represents a different strand of black church that focuses on self-improvement and helping people join the middle-class, rather than Reverend Wright's focus on injustice and oppression.
Bishop JACKSON: My guess is that maybe 25 percent or more might hold that view. So, you've got a gifted communicator with what I'm going to call a flawed world view.
HAGERTY: Jackson was also shocked that Wright violated his pastoral relationship with Obama by revealing information about private conversations. And Jackson believes Wright knew he was torpedoing Obama's campaign.
Mr. JACKSON: For him to speak up now was, in fact, a Judas kiss.
HAGERTY: These conflicting views of Jeremiah Wright reflect a larger truth.
Prof. FREDERICK HARRIS (Political Science, Columbia University): The black church is very complicated.
HAGERTY: Frederick Harris teaches about politics and African-American society at Columbia University.
Prof. HARRIS: It has this Pentecostal prosperity wing. It has its more conservative elements among traditional black Baptists. It has its liberationist wing. So to speak about a black church is a misnomer.
HAGERTY: Beyond that, Harris says Obama's campaign undercuts the role of many black institutions that criticize mainstream politics.
Prof. HARRIS: Given what we know about Jeremiah Wright, I think that he's really impatient with the whole strategy that emphasizes the need for racial unity and deemphasizes the role of racism in American society.
HAGERTY: For civil rights veterans like Reverend Ronald Braxton, the fight between Wright and Obama is heart-breaking. The senior pastor at Metropolitan AME Church in Washington subscribes to Wright's theology. But...
Reverend RONALD BRAXTON (Senior Pastor, Metropolitan AME Church, Washington): I'm not sure that at this moment, Jeremiah Wright has a view of the greater cause. The greater cause, of course, would be the nomination of Barack Obama.
HAGERTY: But if Obama fails, Braxton says, it will not be Jeremiah Wright's fault.
Rev. BRAXTON: He may be blamed, but I don' think he would be the cause for the downfall. The system would have found a way.
HAGERTY: We asked Braxton about some of Wright's more incendiary statements. Would he ever say goddamn America in a sermon?
Rev. BRAXTON: I don't know of one black preacher who would use that term on a Sunday morning.
(Soundbite of music)
Ms. JOAN CLARK BOOKER: (Singing) But God has been good to me.
HAGERTY: Nor in a Wednesday evening service, where 35 or so people - some white, most black - gather at the church sanctuary for a midweek service. Afterwards, congregant Hosiah Huggins echoed comments of others when they said he does not blame Obama for cutting ties with his former pastor.
Mr. HOSIAH HUGGINS: I feel as though he had to separate himself because he has a public responsibility to a major constituency larger than Reverend Wright's Church.
HAGERTY: And the soloist, Joan Clark Booker, just lifts her eyes to the heavens.
Ms. BOOKER: I think, at this particular point, we all just need prayer, really.
HAGERTY: Prayer, she says, to move past this public rift between the pastor and his former congregant.
Barbara Bradley Hagerty, NPR News.